Sacred Marriage, Sacred Parenting, and Sacred Pathways – Most likely, you have heard of at least one of these books. The author, Gary Thomas, is touted by Rick Warren, Focus on the Family, and a host of other Christian well-known ministries. Last year, Lighthouse Trails wrote a special report on Focus on the Family because of their promotion of Thomas and his book Sacred Parenting. FOF answered Lighthouse Trails stating that they saw nothing wrong with Thomas, and they were not interested in looking at the documentation that proved otherwise.
As we have shown in the past, Gary Thomas is an advocate for mantra meditation. In his book, Sacred Pathways, he states:
It is particularly difficult to describe this type of prayer in writing, as it is best taught in person. In general however, centering prayer works like this: Choose a word (Jesus or Father, for example) as a focus for contemplative prayer. Repeat the word silently in your mind for a set amount of time (say, twenty minutes) until your heart seems to be repeating the word by itself, just as naturally and involuntarily as breathing.(p. 185)
It is important to note here that Rick Warren also resonates with Thomas and his spirituality. Warren states: “Gary has spoken at Saddleback, and I think highly of his work … he tells them [readers] how they can make the most of their spiritual journeys. He places an emphasis on practical spiritual exercises.2
But more research has shown that Gary Thomas’ spirituality and his devotion to mystical practices delves into an area that could have significant ramifications on countless families. In his book Sacred Marriage (a book that FOF also stands by and sells on their website)3, Thomas introduces the reader to a woman named Mary Anne McPherson Oliver. It is Oliver’s book, Conjugal Spirituality, that Thomas favorably referencing several times throughout the book. Thomas also references Oliver on his website in a Sacred Marriage study guide.4
Who is Mary Anne McPherson Oliver and why should Christians be concerned about Gary Thomas’ promotion of this woman’s book, Conjugal Spirituality?
On the back of Oliver’s book, it states that “[r]eligious practice as we know it today remains, in effect, ‘celibate.’ Mary Anne Oliver proposes an alternative … she examines the spiritual dynamics of long-term relationship.” Some may be wondering, “What does that all mean?” To put it simply, Oliver believes that sexuality and spirituality go together and that couples are missing out because they have not incorporated the two but rather have practiced what she calls a celibate spirituality.
Oliver received her doctorate in mystical theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and her book permeates with her mystical persuasions. She describes her “discomfort” regarding present views on sexuality and religion and says she hunted for answers by talking to monks, going on retreats and even spending an entire (“liturgical”) year at Taize, an ecumenical, meditation-promoting community in France. Eventually, she came to identify what she termed “conjugal spirituality” (p. 1).
Oliver says that “negative attitudes” and “walls” toward sex have inhibited people and says: “Although the walls are coming down, the separation of sex and spirituality which has been operative since the 4th century has yet to be completely eliminated” (p. 16).
What exactly is Oliver proposing couples do to remove these “walls”? Very clearly, her message to couples is to turn to mysticism. In dismay, she says that “spiritual counsellors [sic] and writers” have not begun to teach the “Upanishads and Tantric writings as the basis for moral theology for couples” and that [s]ome still refuse to grant that mystical experience can be associated with erotic love” (p. 18). Oliver says that changes in mainstream theology have prepared the way for “the emergence of conjugal spirituality.” She adds: “An upsurge of interest in the spiritual life and a renaissance in mystical studies have widened the domain of spirituality” (p. 27).
This mysticism that Oliver encourages is experienced through “bodily exercises” that the couple practice together, “creating one spiritual space.” Listen to some of her instructions in what she describes as “intercourse on all levels of consciousness”:
1. “Center ‘that whole human reality which some people are beginning to call bodymind'” (p.85).
2. “Two basic movements in which each can contact the core energy of the other and experience the enlarging of the oval inhabited by the divine presence” (p. 91).
3. Yin and Yang movements
4. “Concentrate in the stillness and silence” (p. 93).
5. “Center yourselves.”
6. “Meditate using the five senses. Experience the circuit of energy circling slowly through the joined bodies” (p. 93).
7. “Focus a few minutes on the breath as a sign of the Spirit’s activity within yourself” (p.102).
8. “Repeat name or “I love you” as a mantra” (p. 102).
In Conjugal Spirituality, Oliver talks favorably about mystic Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point and the “Indian Tantric Yoga tradition … spoken of as kundalini potential energy” (p. 97). She describes public sexual ceremonies in which couples practice “Taoist visualizations and meditations, accompanied by breathing exercises” and talks of “[i]nvoking the gods and goddesses.” Oliver says that society may frown on such public displays of sexual mysticism at this time and couples may have to improvise until restrictions are lifted. She says that “sexual union celebrated [is] an eschatological sign of God’s kingdom where all will be one” (p. 101).
In the book, Oliver refers to Carl Jung and states that he “predicted that the West would produce its own yoga on the basis laid down by Christianity.” She adds: “I believe conjugal spirituality to be just such a distinctively Western yoga” (p. 109).
For those who do not understand the significance of Gary Thomas’ promotion of Conjugal Spirituality, perhaps a brief lesson in tantric sexuality (an underlying theme in Oliver’s book) will help to illustrate it. Ray Yungen explains:
Tantra is the name of the ancient Hindu sacred texts that contain certain rituals and secrets. Some deal with taking the energies brought forth in meditation through the chakras and combining them with love-making to enhance sexual experiences.
Once completely off-limits to the masses of humanity, tantra, like all other New Age methodologies, is now starting to gain increasing popularity. A Google search on the Internet shows 6,600,000 entries for the word tantra! This union of sexuality and Eastern spirituality is a perfect example to illustrate just how much the New Age has permeated our society as it has affected even the most intimate areas of people’s lives.
The potential to impact a very great number of people, especially men, was brought out in an article by a sex worker who incorporates “Tantric Bodywork” into her services. She paints a very sad portrait of the dynamics of the “enormous sex industry” in which millions of stressed and unhappy men seek out “erotic release” from women who are just as unhappy and stressed as their clients. She observes that there is a “culturally rampant phenomenon that spouses are disconnected from each other.”
To remedy this tragic interplay of exploitation, she has turned to Tantric Union to give her clients what she feels is not just sex but “union with the divine.” After she read a book called Women of the Light: The New Sacred Prostitute, she turned her erotic business into a “temple.” Of this temple, she says it is:
…dedicated to being a haven of the sacred, a home for the embodiment of spirit, filled with altars, sacred objects, plants, art, dreamy sensual music, blissful scents. My space is home to Quan Yin [a Buddhist goddess], crystals blessed by the Entities of John of God [a Brazilian spirit channeler].
Now the “multitudes of men” who come to her get much more than they bargained for. In the past, wives and girlfriends needed only to worry about sexually transmitted diseases from cheating husbands and boyfriends, but now their men may instead bring home spiritual entities!
Most readers might think that tantra is something exceedingly obscure that would never attract average people. But the movie industry thinks otherwise. In a 2003 movie, Hollywood Homicide (starring Harrison Ford, one of the industry’s leading men), viewers were presented with a brief snippet of tantric sex in one scene where fellow police officers opened the locker of Ford’s rookie detective partner and out falls a book (which the camera focuses on) about tantra, revealing the side-kick’s spiritual/sexual affinities. (from /For Many Shall Come in My Name, chapter 8)
In light of Gary Thomas’ promotion of mantra meditation in his book Sacred Pathways, it makes perfect sense that he would be quoting from someone like Oliver. Now the question is, will Focus on the Family continue selling and promoting Sacred Marriage (Zondervan) and pointing people to the spirituality of Oliver, or will they finally realize Gary Thomas’ books do not belong in a Christian bookstore and on the website of a Christian ministry.